How to write true crime stories or novels is a major challenge because this genre is extremely complicated. There’s a reason why only very few writers tackle this area. Despite the many risks associated with this genre, the pay off can be huge.
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If you write a great true crime story, you can be catapulted to the best seller’s status immediately! This genre has also produced some very famous writers who have had their names immortalized for their work and their accurate, historical depictions of events. It’s a given that writing well here can be a very rewarding experience.
However, it’s not as simple or as easy as it appears. Writing a true crime story requires a lot of attention to detail and an innate understanding of this genre. This means that you can not rely just on having a natural knack for this type of writing.
It means that you need to pay attention to a few other factors before you start to write. So, we’re helping you out by making a list of everything you need to know about how to write true crime stories.
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1. The Main Categories of True Crime Stories
Before you start writing true crime stories, you should be aware that this genre also has its own set of categories. These categories further divide the stories published in this genre. On this basis, you can give your work more direction and pick a category which better suits your writing style.
In this case, you can pick from the following main categories for true crime stories:
a. Fiction-Based True Crime or Crime Fiction Stories
Fiction-based true crime stories are also known as crime fiction. They are often considered to be a separate entity but because of certain similarities, they are usually listed with true crime stories. Crime fiction also has a different format and storytelling style as compared to true crime stories.
True crime stories don’t always have characters that readers will sympathize with. Crime fiction follows a set pattern with a proper resolution to it. This isn’t showcased in true crime. The villains in a true crime fiction story always have a motivation behind their actions.
In true crime, this is not the case – some of the crimes are committed for no other reason than ‘just because’. Additionally, crime fiction can take liberties with many details such as police procedures and how the crime is solved. In these stories, the case is usually solved by two to three people. In real life, it takes a small village to crack the case and catch the bad guys.
As you can see, there are a lot of fictitious elements which apply here that don’t always tie in with pure, true crime stories. Examples of crime fiction stories include The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe.
b. Half-Fiction True Crime Stories
Unlike fiction based true crime stories, these are different because they cover many events which happened in reality. But the author also has some creative freedom to add embellishments or drama which changes the original story. When applied purely, this means that only some dialogue will be added here or there.
But, there are also many half-fiction true crime stories which draw inspiration from real life events but change the story as they see fit or add a fictional setting. This does make it more fictional but since it is based on real events, it can be marked as a true crime story. Many writers love this category of true crime stories because they are allowed some creative liberty here.
This genre does have differences from true crime stories as it allows one to use the crime as the major backbone of the story. However, always remember that writing true crime stories can be controversial. People who’ve experienced the crime might consider the story as disrespectful towards their family.
This can then open you up for libel lawsuits and stop the publishing of the book. That’s why many authors who want to cover controversial crimes tend to use the half-fiction category as a buffer.
Good examples of non-fiction true crime stories include The Girls by Emma Cline which is based on the followers of the Charles Manson cult and the murder of famed actress Sharon Tate.
Another popular non-fiction crime story is The Long Drop by Denise Mina which draws inspiration from the story of Peter Manual a.k.a “The Beast of Birkenshaw.”
c. Non-Fiction True Crime Stories
Non-fiction true crime stories are the real deal that the readers really want and love. These are the ones that don’t embellish or detract from the true story. This is also one of the most difficult genres to write because writers cannot add a personal touch or new thoughts in the story. Instead, they have to work with facts.
They have to be as true as possible and do justice to everyone in the story when writing about them. There’s also a higher chance of accidentally slandering someone or giving the wrong impression of them. This can make one more likely to get a lawsuit for libel, slander or for fabricating true facts and more.
There are many writers who have produced true crime stories but if you want the best example, it is In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. The novel covers the murder of a family in Kansas in 1959. It is written so skillfully that while it pays homage to the victims in a respectable manner, it also makes the readers empathize with the criminals.
Once you understand these categories, you will also understand that your writing style has to be different for each one. For this article though, we’re focusing largely on how to write true crime stories based on the non-fiction and half-fiction categories.
This is due to the fact that almost everyone understands or knows how to write crime fiction. With true crime stories, there’s a huge blind spot which can actually land one in hot water.
2. Your Research Is the Key Focus Point
Once you have picked out your genre, you have to start doing research. Now, keep in mind that this is easier said than done. Your research has to be done on the same level as a historian, a journalist or a reporter would require.
Poorly written true crime stories can be career ending moves for writers so this is a field where you want to enter with care. Additionally, you cannot work on theories or assumptions in your work. You will have to provide concrete proof for all the facts that you are stating.
This research isn’t just going to be cursory. It’s going to be in-depth and it needs to be done before you even begin to write the story. You might also have to travel to a different city so it is always a good idea to pick a true crime incident which has occurred in your city.
Additionally, you should make as many notes as you can, not just relating to the event but also other things such as the city, the family, people involved in the case, efforts made to solve it and more. The following are also some core things that you need to pay attention to in order to research properly for your stories:
When you’re visiting the site or looking at other physical stuff, you need to make notes that give you a bigger perspective about the kind of crime that is being committed. These notes are going to be your own observations. Never leave things up to chance or imagine that you’ll remember the notes.
No one has such a good memory and it is possible to forget important details in this manner. You have to write them down on a notepad or copy. Truman Capote traveled to Kansas City with Nelle Harper Lee, who went on to write To Kill a Mocking Bird after this. Together, they wrote thousands of pages of notes for the story which they later relied on to write the book.
Similarly, another half-fiction crime story is The Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie which was loosely based on the Lindenberg Kidnapping that happened in 1932. Christie herself traveled on the Orient Express in 1928 and 1931. She was able to observe the interior of the train first-hand, the environment and also drew inspiration from the passengers as storybook characters. Her notes played a crucial role in shaping the story.
Interviews and Press Releases
Apart from your own notes, you should also try to follow interviews and press releases on the crime that you’re writing about. As a general rule, most high profile criminal cases garner a lot of attention. This works in your favor because you have plenty of interviews and press releases to study.
However, don’t just buy everything you see in the papers. There can be embellishment done and facts forgotten or not included. Use these interviews to flesh out details but also consider doing your own investigations. At best, these interviews and press releases will help you establish a timeline of events for the crime that you want to cover.
The only time you should rely solely on what the press is reporting is when you are covering crime that happened a long time ago. For example: Truman Capote covered a crime which occurred in 1959. He started working on the book in 1960 and it was released in 1966.
Similarly, the Charles Manson and Sharon Tate murders occurred in 1969 but the true crime book about it, named Helter Skelter, was released in 1974. The author was also one of the prosecutors of the Charles Manson trial which happened in 1970.
Now, it is clear that you need to get an insider’s perspective on the issue. But, this means that if you wanted to write about either of these cases today, you will have to go on interviews and press releases alone as it could be difficult to find the people who were involved in the cases.
3. It’s Not a Pleasant Genre to Write
Always remember that true crime stories are based on true crime cases which are never pleasant to read about. In many cases, the individuals who committed these crimes are deeply disturbed and they see no remorse for their actions. Their crimes are often violent towards people and their victims are often helpless women and even children.
The following are some of the most notable criminals and crime stories in media that have had stories written about them:
a. Ted Bundy
Notable Books: Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule and Ted Bundy: Conversations with a Killer by Hugh Aynesworth
Ted Bundy was a serial killer who killed around 30 women in 7 different states from 1974 to 1978. It is speculated that the number of his victims is higher than what he’s confessed to. His crimes range from kidnapping, burglary, rape, and necrophilia.
Despite his gruesome crimes, Bundy was described as being handsome and charismatic to the point that women would often trust him. For his crimes, he showed no remorse and was executed via the electric chair in 1989.
b. Charles Manson
Notable Books: Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi
Charles Manson ran a cult known as the Manson Family where his radical teachings focused on committing crimes as a bid to break societal norms and start a race war. On this basis, his followers murdered 9 people in the months of July to August 1969.
The most disturbing fact was that the followers committing murders were mostly women and they showed particular cruelty. In fact, when Sharon Tate murder happened, Tate was due to give birth in two weeks.
c. Lindenberg Kidnapping
Notable Books: The Case That Never Dies by Lloyd Gardener
The Lindenberg kidnapping occurred in 1932 in March. Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr., son of Charles Lindenberg, the famed US aviator was kidnapped from his home in the middle of the night. The baby was only 20-months old. Despite following all the demands of the kidnappers, the baby was murdered and his body thrown in a ditch, only to be discovered in a state of decay.
The incident was labeled as “The Crime of the Century.” It also caused the FBI to revise and introduce various laws, including the Lindenberg Law, commonly known as the Federal Kidnapping Act. Public hysteria around the case grew to such a pitch that the family had to move to Europe in 1935.
It’s Tougher Than Expected
As you can see, writing about these things can begin to take a toll on you, especially when you have to go and interview violent criminals or people who have suffered losses. Even reading the older press releases and news articles about it can take a toll on you. It’s clear to see that many of them were deeply disturbed people.
That’s why you need to keep this factor in mind when choosing a genre to write about. Writing true crime stories are never going to be easy. It does take a huge toll on your psyche and you have to make sure that you can deal with it if you want to be fully committed to it. Otherwise, you won’t be able to make it through the research phase.
4. Always Fact Check Everything
Whenever you are mentioning something, always take the time to fact check it. Many true crime stories are based upon large public events which drew a lot of media attention. In such cases, you have to make sure that you’re including true and factual information.
Additionally, public cases often can create rumors and myths about the nature of the crime. This makes it even more important to fact check for accuracy. For example, it was said that Charles Manson was a devil worshipper and his follower sacrificed Sharon Tate and the others in the house as part of a ritual.
However, the truth is that they had no idea Sharon Tate was in the house. The Manson family targeted the house because it had previously belonged to Terry Melcher, a record producer who was also an acquaintance of Charles Manson.
So, if you don’t do any fact-checking, you’re more likely to add in the satanic ritual rumor. If you write your work which is so poorly checked, don’t be surprised to face backlash from your readers. Always do your best to not only fact-check the statements but also mention your sources.
This is essential because the more credible your book is, the more it will sell.
5. Don’t Sacrifice the Truth for Some Drama
If you’re writing a pure true crime story, don’t try to embellish the truth or add anything to the story. This can ruin the integrity of the tale and also annoy readers, particularly those who are aware of how certain events took place. By adding drama, you’re unnecessarily ruining the truth of the story.
The biggest example of this is found in Capote’s novel In Cold Blood. Capote also emphasized that his novel is a true retelling of the murder but he did take liberties with the story slightly. While the book is hailed for its factual accuracies, various critics have pointed out that Capote changed the facts of the case when it suited him.
They also pointed out that he added dialogues or scenes, some of which had never taken place. In fact, another famed true crime story writer, Jack Olsen, noted these fabrications and passed comments on them. Additionally, the lead investigator, Alvin Dewey also noted that Capote fabricated the part where he visits the graves of the Clutters in the end.
While the drama worked to push the book into the limelight, it also made it difficult for Capote to work on other projects. After In Cold Blood, he never worked on another book again. Now, Capote was an author of some note, having written Breakfast at Tiffany’s; his fame and status as a celebrity helped him weather through the backlash he faced.
It’s not possible for a seemingly unknown author to write a factually inaccurate true crime story and get away with it. That’s why you need to make sure that you don’t embellish or add unnecessary details.
6. Keep an Eye on Legal Proceedings
If you’re writing about a true crime story which is currently ongoing or involves people who’re in jail awaiting a verdict, you have to be very careful about what you write. By law, the person is innocent until proven guilty so if they haven’t been given a verdict, it is wrong of you to speculate like that in the book or sway public opinion to make it as such.
In some cases, you also want to keep an eye on the legal proceedings to ensure that you have the right time to get all the information you need. The book Ted Bundy: Conversations with a Killer was based on recordings from conversations with Bundy himself. The only reason he complied and talked to people was that, finally, he had been given the death sentence.
In the past, he had been able to get his verdict overthrown, ran away from prison or filed for a mistrial in an attempt to push the date further. Once his fate was sealed and he was moved to death row, he cooperated with the writers because of his vanity – he couldn’t go without letting the world know about his side of the story.
Similarly, if you’re following a true crime case that you want to write about, you want to make sure that you’re allowed to interview the person. If they’re on death row or their execution date is nearby, you will want to change your schedule in order to interview them.
Furthermore, there might be some people who you won’t be granted interview sessions with so, you have to make room for this factor too.
7. Your Narrative Voice will Matter Here
When you’re writing a true crime story, one area that you need to focus on is the connection with the readers. You want them to understand the story properly. It’s not always necessary to have a third person point of view here. If you want, you can use the first-person point of view as well.
In this case, you can write from the perspective of the person or from the point of view of different people. Take some time to play around with the narratives so that you are able to build a better connection with your readers. Always aim for consistency in the approach you are taking.
It Gives More Perspective
Additionally, you might want to emphasize just how different the setting is for the story. You’re taking the reader on a journey here. Most readers have never interacted with criminals or understand the level of mind washing it can take one to contemplate murder for their cause.
Sometimes, it isn’t about murder either. For example, Jonestown was a cult organized by the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project. In November 1978, a total of 918 people committed mass suicide/mass murder as a form of revolutionary suicide. How and why could so many people agree to do that? The answer to this question isn’t exactly black and white.
To make your readers understand such circumstances, you will have to pick the right narrative. In many cases, your writing style can also be adapted to match the vocabulary, language, and lingo of that time period. This helps make the reading process more immersive and shows the readers a different world.
8. Always Get Permission
Writing about a true crime story involves a lot of people. You not only cover the crime but also get to take a look into the lives of the people who were enmeshed in the incident. These can be survivors, family members, loved ones, legal advisors, lawyers, police officers, etc.
When you’re covering this event, it is necessary for you to get permission from them to use the story in your book. For you, this might just be a story but for them, this is something that they experienced. They suffered through it and may still feel the impact of what happened.
Seeing something that they experienced so intimately to be turned into a book can be hurtful for some people. This makes it essential to seek permission if you are using any of their stories.
Be Prepared for Some Hostility Here
Be prepared to be treated like the outsider or be met with hostility when you are researching. In this case, you will have to make sure that you approach the issue as respectfully as possible. It’s a good idea to tackle this issue beforehand.
Otherwise, you can face a libel lawsuit or get a cease and desist order which can mean that you have to remove your books from the shelf. Working within the legal boundaries will also help establish your credibility as a good true crime story writer.
Keep in mind that the writers who don’t follow protocol or ask for permission are looked down upon in the writing community as well.
9. Don’t Be Afraid To Walk Away
One point that you will never see included in knowing how to write true crime stories is knowing how to walk away from a story. You should be able to see when a story is affecting your own mental health and your psyche. Additionally, if the story is one which would hurt the families or other people involved, you want to make sure that you can shelve it for later.
As previously stated, research for true crime stories means that you have to meet and talk with criminals, murders, liars, psychopaths, sociopaths, and mentally disturbed people. You will have to see evidence of their crimes, read about it, look at the videos and do other forms of research.
Additionally, there might be times when the case is so old that you hit a dead end. This can be seen in cases such as the ones about the Black Dahlia which never got a conclusion. In such cases, you have to know that you can only write a limited true crime story.
There’s Always a Silver Lining!
If you end up deciding that writing true crime stories is not for you, don’t give up. You can always turn to write half-fiction true crime stories. These allow you to be more creative about the events that took place.
That’s why most authors often experiment with half-fiction true crime stories. It allows them to take liberties when faced with such limitations.
Now that you know everything you need to know about how to write true crime stories, it’s time to start working on your book today!
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